It should not have been a surprise that Sepp Blatter was re-elected unopposed as FIFA President; after all, the most powerful man in World Football was the only candidate following the hurried withdrawal of his only opponent. What was more of a surprise to some was the fact that the English FA’s attempt to derail El Presidente’s latest victory attracted as many as 17 votes. However, given that there are just over 200 nations in FIFA it still represents a very small minority that are prepared to suggest that Blatter’s way of doing things leaves something to be desired.
The problem is that FIFA is essentially a closed shop that has little interest in opening itself to scrutiny. You suspect that you’d find more of a willingness to talk about how things work inside from your average Freemason than a member of the FIFA Executive. The only chink of light seems to be ironically from one who has become almost as much a symbol of what’s wrong with FIFA as Blatter himself – Jack Warner, who, it seems, is definitely not going to go quietly if he’s removed from his position and will aim to sink a few erstwhile colleagues on the way out.
Evidence is in many ways the key to all of this, and the problem is that solid evidence – as opposed to accusations made by the likes of Lord Triesman – is proving to be hard to come by. Warner at least has had enough access to know where the metaphorical bodies are buried, and his release of the email suggesting that Qatar “bought” the 2022 World Cup may act as a warning shot. However ultimately the question is whether even solid evidence will be taken on by FIFA unless it suits them – and no-one particularly can force them to do so.
The problem is that FIFA is quite literally a law unto itself. FIFA is accountable to FIFA. Technically FIFA is accountable to the member associations, but as the vitriol spouted towards the English FA when they dared to question the process showed, it is very difficult to hold people accountable if the majority just aren’t interested in doing so.
Indeed, the fact that David Bernstein was prepared to say anything should be seen less as making a principled stand and more to do with improving the FA’s image in England in my opinion. The FA has actually risked nothing by doing what it has: it is already marginalised and ignored as far as FIFA is concerned, and it’s difficult to imagine Blatter and his supporters being overly concerned in any case. To certain sections of the English Press however, the FA is the plucky underdog who’s prepared to stand up to the big bully even if ultimately it still had its lunch flushed down the toilet. Given the FA desperately needs some positive PR, Bernstein had nothing to lose.
Almost inevitably the speculation and the rhetoric in some quarters turns to withdrawing from FIFA and setting up some sort of alternative. This is however pretty much a non-starter. 17 nations may have voted for the FA’s proposal – but that’s a long way from being unhappy enough to leave FIFA. And unless the ones unhappy are major nations in terms not just football prowess but also commercial value to sponsors, Blatter will happily wave goodbye to them and wait for them to plead to be allowed back in.
The rub is you see that FIFA in many ways is proving to be a highly successful organisation. With big commercial sponsorship deals, and tournaments from youth level up to the World Cup itself – regarded as the biggest single-sport event in the World – commercially and profile-wise, FIFA is highly successful. Trying to compete against it would be like claiming the Home International Championship was the superior tournament. So unless the major nations in Europe and South America join in, the only winners from an English-lead withdrawal from FIFA would be FIFA itself.
So what can be done? Ultimately I think all that can be done is wait. Blatter is now 75, and even he will not go on forever; and there is always the hope that a new broom might get the chance in 2015. England’s best policy now is probably to sit down, keep quiet publicly and try and build a block of support for that election that will allow a candidate with a more open approach to get in. And he almost certainly would not be English.